Gov. David Ige on Monday expressed cautious optimism that the next several weeks could prove to be a turning point for Hawaii’s fight against COVID-19, even as the number of confirmed cases rises on Maui and Oahu.
In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program, Ige said that a vaccine passport that would allow travelers to skip pre-flight tests and post-flight quarantines could be just four weeks away.
He also said that interisland travel restrictions could be lifted in May, assuming Hawaii’s vaccine rollout goes according to plan and everyone who wants to receive a vaccine can on that date.
But the governor also urged the public to remain vigilant against the coronavirus and to continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding large crowds.
“I just want ask everyone to be a little more patient,” Ige said. “We want to give everyone the opportunity to get vaccinated. I think that’s really important for our entire community.”
Like many other states, Hawaii has experienced an uptick in the number of confirmed cases with triple digits reported on several days in recent weeks.
But the state also is expanding the eligibility requirements so more people can be vaccinated against COVID-19, raising hopes that an end to the pandemic may be in sight.
The governor anticipated that Hawaii could reach herd immunity, meaning enough people have been inoculated to make the spread of the disease unlikely, by May and June.
Ige also put a timeline on when Hawaii could see a vaccine passport and lifting of interisland travel restrictions, days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance saying that people who are fully vaccinated “can travel safely within the United States.”
On Friday, Lt. Gov. Josh Green said that guidance gives the state more power to move forward with a passport program.
On “Spotlight” the governor said he is also still in talks with the county mayors regarding lifting interisland travel restrictions, adding that the rising cases on Oahu and Maui are concerning and a final decision would depend on meeting a goal of opening vaccinations to the general public by May 1.
“Until we get to that point where everyone has the opportunity to get vaccinated, and everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated, I’d just ask everyone to be patient,” Ige said. “It’s really a matter of weeks, and that would make a big difference for everyone involved.”
Hawaii reopened to travelers late last year with a new program known as Safe Travels, which allows people arriving from out of state to bypass a mandatory 10-day quarantine if they receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure.
Ige said Hawaii is participating in a pilot program with two companies, CommonPass and Clear,to develop a system allowing vaccinated travelers to bypass restrictions with what is often called a vaccine passport.
Asked how soon that verification system would be in place, Ige said it could take at least four more weeks because the companies need to integrate their systems with the state’s Safe Travels program as well as systems in other states.
“Every state is doing it a little bit differently, and some states are better organized than others,” Ige said. “(CommonPass and Clear) are working with all the states, because they understand how important it is. And they do say it’s a while away, that there are many variables they are working through.”
The state also is working on partnerships with international carriers like Japan Airlines on implementing a passport program for international flights, Ige said.
Update: Asked during an afternoon press conference about how long it would take to get a vaccine passport program running, state Chief Information Officer Doug Murdock said a passport program could be ready by summer, though he hesitated in putting a specific date on when that might happen.
A launch date depends on how quickly the companies could cobble together a vaccination database.
“They might have parts of the country first and add more as they go,” Murdock said. “And so it’s hard to peg a date, but it wouldn’t surprise me if by summer we could have this going and have that as an availability for all the people who want to come to Hawaii.”
Ige said the federal government has no plans to create a national vaccination database. Complicating the matter are smaller pharmacies or medical groups that don’t have the same capacity as large companies like CVS do to hurriedly collect and report vaccination data to local governments, he said. The patchwork of government requirements surrounding vaccinations may also slow Clear and CommonPass’ work in getting a vaccine passport set up.
“They’re going to have to go state by state and maybe even county by county…to be able to get access to vaccination records and data in order to stitch together a database that would allow us to validate travel around the country,” Ige said.